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Money Well Spent?: The Truth Behind the Trillion-Dollar Stimulus, the Biggest Economic Recovery Plan in History Hardcover – January 31, 2012
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Kirkus, December 1, 2011
“A deeply reported, well-written account of a difficult topic to capture, partly because of the complexity and partly because the stimulus package remains a work in progress.”
Dave Davies,NPR’s Fresh Air
“an important, and eminently-readable book…The real value of Grabell's book is that it digs into the meat of the plan - how it was crafted, how the spending was divided into strikingly different programs, and what their impacts were.”
The Economist’s Democracy in America blog
“The debate we had about the stimulus probably should have been a lot like the book Mr Grabell has written: a detailed investigation of what does and doesn't work in stimulus spending and whether the government really can jump-start a promising industry through investments, tax breaks and industrial policy. But that wasn't the debate we had.”
Glenn Altschuler, Huffington Post
“Richly detailed, judicious, thorough and timely, his book is a primer on how to evaluate this policy -- and all public policies -- in a highly partisan, polarized, paralyzed political climate.”
Tyler Cowen, Marginal Revolution
“I recommend Michael Grabell, Money Well-Spent?: The Truth Behind the Trillion-Dollar Stimulus, The Biggest Economic Recovery Plan in History. It is a very good journalistic account of how the money was spent, and less scandal-mongering than the title might indicate. I found it to be quite an objective account. There should be more books like this, looking at the nuts and bolts of economic legislation.”
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Money Well Spent? is a legitimate effort by author Michael Grabell to report on and analyze the trillion dollar stimulus plan and let the trillion chips fall where they may. Along the way he does his best to give names, faces, and places a sympathetic hearing. Grabell finds the facts that make lie of some of the more infamous misinformation generated on the political right and is just as ready to declare scandal where White House investments (Solyndra) were pursued beyond reasonable hope for a positive outcome.
In this respect Grabell adheres to the independent reputation of ProPublica, where he is employed as a reporter. If nothing else this book is a case in point that investigative journalism need not be biased.
In writing that last sentence, I am obligated to mention my sense that the author tends to work harder when trying to make a case against the Obama administration and that it is more natural for the author to find a case against the political right. That is, I suspect Grabell leans to the left.
Alternately an objective analysis of the results of the stimulus package should lean to the left. The number of jobs created by the stimulus package was so far from the original White House claims that the White House did have to change its method of reporting. Even so Grabell makes it clear that substantial numbers of people became employed and/ or stayed employed because the federal government stepped in to keep the economy moving after an earlier White House failed to act to avoid that collapse.
The technique of following individuals and the communities they lived in lends legitimate drama and readability to this book. This is an appropriate journalistic technique, It is not new with Grabell and is also common in political speeches. I would've preferred more tabular analysis that would have allowed for more objective accounting of stimulus wins and losses.
This is one of those books you should have read before the election. It is a book you should read if you are going to document your opinions on government engagement in the marketplace. All I ask is if you do choose to read Money Well Spent?; try to turn off the echo chamber that is political opinion and reporting in the age of narrowcast journalism.
In addition to following the big picture, the interwoven personal stories of real people, communities, and companies impacted by the great recession were effective in humanizing the plight----especially needed and often lost in a conversation about a trillion dollars and sweeping policy.
The chapter on the Green Economy was especially interesting to me, as it's a topic I follow with great interest. Throughout the book, Grabell touches on boondoggle fits and starts projects, arriving at a rhetorical question about whether or not America is still capable of a 'Moonshot' type execution. Honest, frustrating, and---in a way---inspiring.
I must say it again: well done!
The author does not hide his views (Keynesian economics works, helping people in times of economic trouble is what government has to do) but makes a very strong effort to present not just the pros but also the cons behind the stimulus. The pros being, it put some people to work and some necessary work got done. The cons being, there was a lot of poor execution - projects took a long time to get off the ground so never really stimulated very much, and many were ineffective or wastes of money. So you get a presentation that struck me as "warts and all", that is, he does not hide the warts of numerous individual failures of design and execution, but he endorses the overall program as something that just had to be done.
As this is journalism, he gives priority to following specific persons affected by the recession and specific projects that comprised part of the stimulus. He also provides a narrative of legislative, political and bureaucratic events in DC from 2009 onward that led to the stimulus programs and interweaves them with the stories about ordinary people and specific project successes and failures. I thought all of these were very good examples of professional journalism and could find hardly anything to fault in it. I should note that he dwells almost entirely on the public works aspect of the stimulus, and says little about either the tax cut portion or the welfare expansion portion.
Likewise, this being journalism, he tends to eschew macro analysis and just focus on the concrete. One analytical omission that jumped out at me was that there is no acknowledgment of the role of monetary policy in pulling the economy out of its downward spiral, which frankly, I perceive to have played a much larger role than the stimulus, which struck me an economically weak grab bag of projects of very mixed merit. He also does not get very deep into the implications of his analysis - sure, this was poorly executed, but ... what? Should we try it again? Or is it realistic to think that a DC centric government of a nation of 310 million could do a lot better? I happen to think not, regretfully. But that is not what the author wanted to write about and, as he has done a bang-up job on his chosen topics, I respect that. He can leave it for the think tanks to write those publications.
If you are interested in the subject, I think you will find this a very admirably professional work of journalism and I recommend it to you.
UPDATE, October 2013 -- persons seriously interested in this topic may wish to make themselves aware of a NBER paper by Gerald Carlino and Robert Inman entitled Macro Fiscal Policy in Economic Unions which reviews the stimulative effects of the "American Recover and Reinvestment Act" and concludes (consistent with my skeptical remarks earlier)that: "First, federal transfers to state and local governments are less stimulative than transfers to households and firms. Second, matching transfers for welfare spending are more effective for stimulating GDP growth than are unconstrained transfers for project spending. Matching aid is fully spent on welfare services or middle-class tax relief; half of project aid is saved and only slowly spent in future years. Third, ARRA would have been 30 percent more effective in stimulating GDP growth had the share spent on government purchases and project aid been fully allocated to private sector tax relief and matching states' lower-income support."
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